My new blog is here.
My friend Gerry on Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” yesterday:
From my place in the crowd it seemed to me that what many people in the crowd wanted was recognition that they too are a collective, that they too constitute a “movement,” that there are other people in the country who think like they do and want what they want and that all such people might get together and work to make things happen. They’re people who believe alternatives to what exists are possible and necessary, and want someone to show them where to go to start to get it. But Stewart’s supposed call for civility and “reasonableness” is completely orthogonal to that drive, if not actively destructive of it—and the Rally to Restore Sanity a basically pointless, poorly executed exercise in self-promotion that is already completely forgotten.
It’s as if the entire Obama campaign and presidency happened again, only in miniature, in the span of a single afternoon.
These crowds are still waiting for some leaders.
zunguzungu posts a cross-section of commentary after the link.
Commonplace observation on ideology #24509: If you say the wrong thing, you have to fight just to be heard. If you say the right thing, you can be famous before you’ve even had a chance to hear yourself speak.
As Laura Mulvey was well aware, the misogyny in Only Angels Have Wings is just as skillfully brought off as its rejuvenation of the aviation subgenre. The relations the film establishes between gender and spectatorship are essential, both to its thematic core and to how it manages audience pleasure. When Jean Arthur’s Bonnie Lee first enters the film-world of Barranca, Ecuador, she’s a challenge to the roving sexual interest of the two male pilots; the possibility that she might resist their advances (as evidenced by the ship purser’s scratched eye) is part of her attraction. The camera adopts their perspective as they follow her, until, mistaking them for scary brown locals due to their lecherous behavior, she brandishes a machete at them. After they properly introduce themselves: “Are you Americans? I thought you were a couple of– well gee winnikers, am I glad to see you!” From here on, the film will adopt Bonnie’s perspective.
We have crossed over into the first hermetic circle — that of whiteness. A white world that must isolate itself from its surroundings in order to exist. We were, in fact, already there, even if our two pilots had chosen to temporarily forget. The point of the machete, though played as a gag (a false hailing), is an unsubtle reminder of the responsibility that goes along with that status. Its true implications will be made all too clear when one of the pilots, Joe, dies in a crash while recklessly trying to reserve his dinner date with Bonnie — having won it in a coin toss, apparently in spite of a preexisting relationship with Lily, a ‘local’ (the only interracial liaison depicted in the film), and the only person besides Bonnie and Dutch who will openly mourn his death. Joe “didn’t have what it takes,” as Cary Grant’s Geoff Carter coldly announces after the fact; more importantly his loyalties were confused; he lacked the self-possession and refusal of all ‘non-professional’ attachments that constitute the ethical code of their boys’ club. She crosses the second circle — that of masculine ‘professionalism’ — by being a good performer, which means learning to submit to the unspoken laws of her audience.
Bonnie, in her series of transitions from potential object of desire, to audience stand-in/romantic foil, to (ambiguously) accepted love interest for Carter, learns in our place the proper attitude that her ‘natural’ fascination for these men implies. When Carter, the film’s libidinal and moral center (it’s relatively rare to see the two combined in one character outside of Howard Hawks movies. They’re usually offset dialectically: think Marvin vs. Borgnine in Dirty Dozen, Bond vs. M, or Danny Glover vs. Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, or Ed Norton vs. Brad Pitt in Fight Club) affects disinterest toward Bonnie, he does the same to us. We came, did we not, to be entertained by a certain type of masculine action movie, starring Cary Grant; the film proceeds to demonstrate more emphatically than most what it takes to be the ethical implications of that choice. As Bonnie the performer wins her tiny, elite male audience by learning to obey its rules, we the mass audience learn to take moral and libidinal satisfaction in the film’s denouement, by learning to obey its rules. Which are the same: I will never ask you to do anything, therefore you must never ask me to do anything. You are, of course, free to leave at any time. And underlying those, the rule too obvious to be spoken: you are not welcome to participate, only to observe.
My viewing partner commented that Hawk’s much-lauded interest in ‘professionalism’ seemed nothing of the sort, in this film at least — too many pilots die, most of the shipments fail to reach their destinations, the airline fails to win the commission that would justify all those dangerous missions. Not to mention the owner, his company held hostage by the CEO, isn’t even that interested. Like the Wall Street traders who steered the global economy into the dumps, these are men addicted to the thrill of having nothing more to lose than other peoples’ property. They are fascinating for being a team of outlaws, men who submit to a moral code opposed to mainstream society, and in so doing push that society’s normative definition of masculinity to the point of entertaining distortion, that is to say its ‘pure form.’ Barranca provides the isolated (because nonwhite) space where this ideal can be privately enjoyed without contradiction. Every analysis I’ve read on masculine in-groups in film has to come up with some awkward way of reconciling the emphasis on teamwork with the equal and contradictory emphasis on individual badassery. It’s film theory’s version of the relation between sovereignty and the state.
Common sense might suggest that the “team of professionals” trope in cinema is a fantasy about living beyond the contradictory confines of an essentially half-assed, womanly society. But in fact, the paradoxes are only more extreme: group loyalty demands that they forget the dead to minimize dangerously distracting emotional trauma; the unconditional respect they have for each other can never be extended to non-pilots (viz. Kidd’s painful loss of status because of his bad eyesight); they’re supposed to be ‘professional,’ but live and die on luck; Carter’s authority is unchallenged despite the fact that his penchant for sending his men on suicide missions can’t (as mentioned above) even be blamed on shareholder pressures. What attracts is not any notion of perfection, but the intensity, the ‘beautiful’ because quixotic irrationality of this situation. These are also features of religious cults and radical conservative politics, both of which rely more on extravagance for their appeal than any promise of a better world to come. Viewing this film in the midst of a widely reported ‘crisis of masculinity,’ it seems more obvious than ever that insofar as there are ‘masculine values’ distinct from universal values, they are little more than alibis for power, privilege, and an arch refusal of responsibility. The last shot, of Carter laughing madly with his bro in the face of death while piloting a rickety special effect, should be read as an ironic commentary on the fragility of this fantasy’s material conditions.
On further reflection, I think the argument in these two posts is flawed, and those flaws come from a reactionary chain of reasoning. They take some not-bad impulses, and instead of analyzing them, use them as the basis for far-reaching generalizations. They’re blog posts, in other words, but it seemed a good idea to make a few points about how they went wrong.
The impulses are these: it is really easy and thus really common for anyone left of Karl Rove to have a knee-jerk loathing of the American populist right, i.e. the Tea Party. It is really easy to feel superior by bashing them in public relying on the same condescending assumptions that have been reserved for any large group of people the speaker doesn’t like since time immemorial: they don’t accept institutionally approved forms of knowledge, they’re the brainwashed tools of elites, they’re full of irrational hatreds and prejudices, they don’t know how good they have it, they’re greedy little vermin who just want more, more, more. It’s really easy to let these insults take the place of analysis, or even of considering them as people – that’s what they’re there for, after all. So the first impulse is to, at the very least, reach out to the target of all this vitriol, if only to understand exactly why they should be excommunicated. Why is the enemy of my enemy not my friend?
The second impulse has to do with ‘the spectacle.’ The best theories of how whatever this is works are dinosaurs. The most sophisticated are mostly instrumental — how to collect more accurate market data, neurological responses to visual and other stimuli, vaguely Freudian rules of thumb about who likes what, the politics of content regulation, intellectual property, etc. If they tell you anything useful, they don’t tell you how to gain power (‘cultural influence’) without strengthening the institutions and conventions that make the media what it is, i.e. they have no room for serious criticism. The Marxist theories tend to treat the spectacle (aka the media, aka Big Media) as a Borg-like mass, or an inchoate alternate universe full of vague opportunities for ‘revolution.’ Opposition to the great powers tend to concentrate into boycotts (the spectacle can’t help, only hurt, its misinformation should be resisted by facts and community organizing) or appropriation (insert made-up ‘hacking’ jargon here), both usually poorly thought out.
But mostly it is the uncanny effect of being compelled (via social pressures of all kinds) to make one set of arguments in one direction: anti-elitist, pro-populist critiques of dominant institutions against liberals who, it is increasingly obvious, are too invested in them to enact even modest reforms, and a contradictory set of arguments in the opposite direction: basically Enlightenment-type debunking of irrational bad faith skepticism against a right that’s continually rewarded for not thinking.
And the problem with following these impulses is that the ‘objective situation’ of commodity culture is one of universal ignorance — no matter how distorted or superficial media images get, how misleading their implications, or how interested their uses, if they’re useful they can’t help but matter. Racism, for example, has to be denounced in whatever form, no matter how impossible it seems for anyone to accept its legitimacy. If you’re lucky, you might have time to sneak in a comment about how anti-racism of some low-cost kind can be instrumentalized to distract White People from worse racism, but only if you’re lucky. It’s very eaThere is a very real fog of war in play that can only be passed through with intense, disciplined effort. It’s no good to refute a lazy generalization about the Tea Party with another lazy generalization that cheaply points out the hypocrisy of the first. In war, everyone is a hypocrite. And it can be easy, on a minor little blog — that cheapest of soapboxes — to forget the facts of war.
Blueprint for the English garden: meandering routes plotted in ‘nature,’ interspersed with freestanding ‘ruins,’ occasions for a little voyage de la mémoire. Here, a scene extracted from classical epic is made familiar and livable through incorporation into the genre of landscape. So effectively that decades later, gentlemen of means did want to inhabit it, and to the best of their capacity, did. A new kind of professional was born: the landscape architect.
William Wylde, “View of Manchester from Kersal Moor” (1852)
Behold “Cottonopolis” as Manchester became popularly known, after its principle export. Seen today, landscape’s encounter with a realism of disruption and trauma bears more than a subtle resemblance to stock images from science fiction. Whereas the landscape garden opened up to refined sensation figures from refined history, Wylde’s painting locates the viewer on a preserved historical site (the moor, a city park, was heavily associated with Rome) at once surrounded by and comfortably distanced from its present and future. Among the first examples of a place’s complete redefinition according to its function within an integrated national production regime, it also came to be understood as the site where that regime’s excesses were the most visible, striking, ‘sublime.’ Contrast with London, locus of another kind of economic ‘function,’ another brand of ‘excess.’
Before getting lured away by topicality in my last post, I was about to make a point about ‘pseudo’ politics.
An epigraph to start:
“A thought is sometimes beyond the thing that it binds itself to in the course of resisting it, and that is its freedom. Freedom follows on from the subject’s need to express itself. The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth. For suffering is objectivity impinging upon the subject. What the subject experiences as its most subjective thing, its self-expression, is mediated by objects.”
- Adorno, Negative Dialectics
And next, a hypothesis: politics in the 20th century has been organized around the development of methods for control of the mass. It hardly needs to be added that non-state actors such as international corporations are at least equally involved. Political common sense says that modern politics = mass politics.
Despite all the noise about social networking, the basic ends remain the same. It’s just that the object ‘mass’ is being obsolesced as a useful heuristic, as capital’s free access to bodies, minds, and information becomes deeper and more intimate. Everywhere we see continuing development toward a completely controllable sensory environment – the grand synthesis promised by digital, biotech, neuroscientific, and architectural innovations, a world where ‘environment’ finally stops being a sloppy metaphor and becomes both empirical thing and technocultural object, virtually equivalent to ‘society’ itself. Whether this dream is ever actually realized anywhere is beside the point — it is the general direction of capital investment, assimilating even humanity’s attempts to stave off its own self-destruction, and so other possible lines of development are a priori subordinate. Another world is improbable.
Democratic ideology, on the other hand, insists on a definition of political agency that contradicts this current. Its ideal world consists of discrete, independent entities that are self-directed and thus individually responsible for their actions, as well as the stability of their relationships with others. Institutions are made up of individual actors, and the whole self-similar structure works best when all its parts are formally in agreement, an outcome which is never assumed but must be painstakingly arrived at through processes of deliberation. As Marx argued, the brave new world of capitalist utopia relies on the individualist ethical structure provided by democratic institutions while steadily eroding their ideological foundation: ‘enlightened self-interest,’ or the link between self-determination and mutual support.
Most public debates in the U.S. are waged by advocates of these two sides: the defender of democracy vs. the prophet of the artificial paradise. I use democracy in the broadest possible sense here; despite their differences, most advocates of anarchism, libertarianism, and liberalism tend to rally around the theme of autonomy, of freedom from coercion by an oligarchical state apparatus or ‘runaway’ corporation. Ideal collectives are imagined to be local and ad hoc (“grassroots” to use the current lingo), formed around a single issue, such as the management of a co-op, or a defense of civil rights, their duration inversely proportional to size. Large scale changes to political structure is where agreement breaks down, but the range of opinion seems to be between a) regulating institutional excesses (the liberals) and b) somehow guaranteeing negative freedom, as in “life would be better if we didn’t have x corrupt institution and we could do y ourselves” (the radicals).
Indeed, the very notion of collective (like ‘community’) implies a sense of ‘naturalness,’ of intellectual and affective immediacy: a group of more or less equal individuals who can communicate with each other without the assistance of an unwieldy technical or institutional apparatus. There’s even something counterintuitive about applying it to national populations, social classes, consumer demographics, and victimized ‘minorities,’ which, despite the fact that states, think tanks, sociological studies, and Web 2.0 corporations can ‘map’ their individual members to an unprecedented degree of detail, can only be popularly conceived in terms of the consequences of their (mis)management by elites. The mass as future reward — cue sentimental fantasy of universal community — vs. the mass as imminent punishment — cue the unpredictable, threatening mob.
The mass demonstration is a primitive form of political mobilization that serves to reinforce the limits outlined above more often than it points beyond them. Yet it remains the most reliable means of popular political change, because it subverts institutional ‘decision-making’ routines with ‘spontaneous’ collective agency. It frees a population from its bureaucratic context, allowing a group that normally appears as a particularized ‘identity’ (African-Americans, anti-war activists, community members, etc.) to make a direct, ‘universal’ claim. This is why left-wing protests are not only repressed and mocked in the corporate media, but the very future of the tactic is coming under attack. One can imagine an eventual compromise in which mass demos are legitimized in the same way that voting is, once they can be cheaply dispersed without damage to life or property. Once again we would have the familiar dilemma of liberal reform: many more people would be allowed a voice in mainstream political discourse, but at the cost of their political independence and the future of an independent left.
Enter cultural politics. To pick out one consequence of postmodernism that superficially seems to bolster democratic ideology: a free-floating notion of ‘influence,’ detached from the authority to determine policy, the possession of economic assets, or common interest, is broadly accepted as the true basis of legitimate power (even liberal and conservative defenders of the Status Quo are unhappy when people say it lacks ‘popular support’). So ideologically ‘culture’ has a privileged position, if a quixotic one — the sphere of human activity where individual freedom can express itself freely, a kind of virtual democratic utopia where participants compete for the right to influence behavior in the other, more restricted (and therefore less ideal) spheres of modern society. Where their secret truths can be read, where the future of the whole can be divined. In practice, every message has to route through the culture industry, which means every message must become a commodity. The results are familiar: politicians are celebrities, politics is entertainment, every movement must be branded, etc.
But lest we float off into ’90s-style hyperreality, we should remember that Baudrillard did nothing more than describe the subjective experience of the first world petty bourgeois consumer. There never was an absolute split between culture and reality for a regime of simulation to erase (just like there wasn’t one between mind and body); that pantheon of mythical divisions is commodity culture’s chief ideological product. Like other media commodities, Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacrum persuades us to imagine the problem for which it is the (merely intellectual) solution. What we see instead is the disciplining of culture into one of the most progressive forces of production and accumulation, one that relies on fantasies like the simulacrum (or ‘immaterial labor’ in another discourse) to give it a false sense of consistency and inevitability. The difficult thing to come to terms with, and what makes certain empty figments of postmodernity so attractive, is that the idea of ‘culture’ we’re taught to mourn is already a fantasy. What Raymond Williams argued began as an ideologically overdetermined reaction to 19th century industrialization, today does not necessarily refer to a shared history, creed, ethnicity, national identity, sexual orientation, commodity preference, or any difference at all; it can finally be used as a sign of contentless authenticity, indicating not the right to exist, but the factual existence of something closed to theoretical questioning (though no less urgent for that): the culture of poverty, the culture of ownership, business culture, geek culture, cultural influence, the culture of success, the culture of intolerance.
These various ‘cultures’ are more like environments, bubble-like ‘spheres of influence.’ Instead of defining the conditions for kinds of agency, they assume only a single kind, addressing the individual as a consumer (not necessarily of the culture commodity in question but of ‘culture’ at large) presumed to have some vague degree of influence over cultural ‘style.’ The most obnoxious version of this is the idea that we as ‘smart shoppers’ (or ethical shoppers, most advocates try to convince you that they’re the same thing) have the power to reverse climate change. However, it’s no less realistic than the claim it’s usually set against, that we have the political power to stop climate change despite being non or semi-organized. Certainly ‘we’ in the form of the many activist, labor, community, and consumer organizations we are free to join, can take effective action against coal power plants, get people we agree with elected, and encourage whatever ‘green’ production processes CEOs think will still be profitable, but the idea of a bunch of protests and boycotts passing a climate policy adequate enough to stave off armageddon is as doomed as trying to convince Bush or Obama to leave Afghanistan ‘prematurely.’ Not only is it true that elected officials will only act in their constituency’s favor if pressured to do so, they can only be pressured to do what will allow them as a class to retain their privileges. And today, the needs of biological life and the needs of capital are rapidly, catastrophically diverging.
All impotence aside, as long as we’re obligated to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, responsibility for the collective consequences of our individual actions is a necessary consequence. This is impossible as either a citizen or a consumer. So, we go crazy. Tightening the double bind, the rhetoric that accompanies political and economic disempowerment is one of increasing empowerment, though with any hint of antagonism censored. That society’s improvement hinges on all of humanity transforming themselves into ‘responsible individuals’ is the polar opposite of liberating. Now I don’t think this ‘politically empowering’ rhetoric of ethical responsibility can be entirely dispensed with, even if it is tied to our subjection by a false individualism. But I don’t think it’s any more or less a part of the spectacle than the ‘politically disempowering’ rhetoric of the masses. They are, in the poststructuralist jargon, just conduits for different technologies of control that are currently in the process of becoming interoperable. The people of the world are mobilized according to the latter, ‘objectified’ form as well as the former ‘subjective’ one, and the conditions of appearance of the mass, not just the networked individual, have to be mastered if they (who are we) are ever to move beyond it.
aka What I’ve Been Doing For The Past…er, I’d rather not say how long. Look, it’s an academic publication. By graduate students, even. Read more on the homepage.
If any of this sounds interesting, you can buy it on Amazon, which I normally wouldn’t recommend but it’s sort of hard to find otherwise. Don’t worry, I’m not making any money.
Not on the cover: a long introduction by the editors, and a (critical) review of Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World and Graham Harman’s book on Latour by me. Both can be found in PDF form via the link to the homepage. Don’t worry, collegiality is strictly maintained throughout.
As co-editor I’m not allowed to pick favorites, but even the pieces I disagree with (some more violently than others — readers of this blog will probably be able to guess which ones) are at least well put.